STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are the engine driving economic growth worldwide. All sectors of the economy rely on highly skilled graduates to drive innovation. In recognition of this, and to help address the shortage of STEM graduates, there is a plethora of initiatives in the UK and across the globe to promote STEM education to all ages, from primary school up to advanced research at universities.
But it's not just the number of STEM graduates we need to address. We also need to ensure they have the necessary skills and experience to be able to fulfil the expectations of prospective employers from the start. A deep technological understanding in conjunction with a wider range of skills are now necessary for a career in any sector of the economy. Ensuring that the next generation is enthused and qualified for their chosen career is something that businesses need to actively invest in - this includes time and energy as well as hard cash. It is the responsibility of both academia and industry to equip students with the expertise and skills to drive innovation. Prerequisite for this is close familiarity with three constituent parts: underlying knowledge, enabling technology and hands-on experience of problem solving in a competitive environment
Businesses need to help students by sharing their experience and to facilitate educational projects that enable a holistic approach to tackling real-world design problems, while developing different ways of thinking that encourage creativity and innovation. They should help to move education beyond the confines of the syllabus and place a higher value on longer-term project-based learning.
Initiatives such as Formula Student - Europe's most established educational motorsport competition - enable businesses to help students to develop real-world experience and are a good example of companies investing in the innovators of tomorrow. Although there is a financial commitment, the real value comes from the support and insight that they can give students as they develop their project.
For participants, the primary benefit of student competitions, such as Formula Student, is that they provide an opportunity to get hands-on experience with a real-life engineering problem: designing a car, or building a robot, for example. The scope and complexity of the problems exceed any project faced as part of the university curriculum and don't have a pre-defined solution. They give participants an opportunity to explore and put the theory they've learned into practice, often using industry-standard tools.
It's not only engineering skills that are developed by participating in student competitions. Working as part of a team on such an extensive project also helps to build transferrable skills such as team work, problem solving, critical thinking and communication; all vital in any future profession.
But the benefits aren't exclusive to the teams participating. For businesses, it's an opportunity to access a pool of highly-talented prospective employees and monitor their performance over an extended period of time. These events also provide an opportunity to showcase technological innovations and inspire students to continue their engineering career.
Technology providers need to create an environment and ecosystem whereby students can learn and experiment with advanced tools used in industry. This requires approaches to enable novice users to gradually develop the skills needed thus enabling them to scale the steep learning curves in a manageable manner. Integrating software tools for technical computing, data analysis, visualisation and Model-Based Design into this process is particularly important as key competencies with these tools are necessary in all parts of a modern economy to facilitate a smarter workplace.
Educators are also responsible for investing in STEM by ensuring that the courses they teach move away from a purely theoretical level and instead provide students with real-world engineering challenges as well as supporting the development of broader skills. Businesses can play a further role here by providing supporting this holistic experience, whether that's through guest lectures, access to tools, or providing real-life materials and examples as the basis for projects.
But the drive to encourage STEM education needs to start much earlier than university. We must reach children in schools and at home. Parents and teachers alike, through the widespread availability of low-cost hardware such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, now have the opportunity to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists and allow them to experience the excitement of not just using, but creating technology, while developing key skills such as problem solving.
Whilst the Government plays a core role in promoting and investing in STEM education, there is also an opportunity for businesses, technology providers, educators, parents and students to work together to help inspire the next generation of scientists, financiers, managers, engineers and mathematicians. This collaborative approach will benefit individuals by opening up a diverse and exciting career path as well as benefiting the UK economy as STEM skills form the core competency of all industries for future economic growth.